Will Hard Soda Create Good Feelings?



What’s Hard Soda?

There has been some buzz lately about hard sodas being the next big thing. Last year, hard root beer took off. This survey of two popular hard root beers by Ethan Lascity explains the idea. While made from a brewed malt base, by the reports I’ve read, they don’t really taste like beer, more like a traditional (non-alcohol) root beer with a punch. Clearly, this has stimulated the idea in some that any soda pop might undergo “hard” treatment.

MillerCoors announced recently a line of hard sodas under the Henry name, and the Jed’s line of ditto from the venerable F.X. Matt Brewing of Utica, NY was recently introduced.

The category looks to burgeon.

Ginger and orange are flavours out of the gate for MillerCoors: there is Henry’s Hard Orange and Henry’s Hard Ginger Ale. Henry Weinhard is a famed name in brewing on the west coast. Blitz-Weinhard Brewing Co. was a regional independent in Oregon, but descendants of the founder sold the company to Pabst Brewing Company in 1979. It went through a number of corporate ownerships, and the labels are now part of giant MillerCoors.

Some people think hard soda will reinforce the soft drink market in the sense that people who might have balked at mixing vodka and lemon soda, say, due to the calorie load of the pop, won’t cavil at choosing a hard soda with a similar taste.

Origins of Hard Sodas

20 years ago, the Canadian-originated Mike’s Hard Lemonade created a sensation that has never stopped and you can get the brand today in numerous flavours. Mike’s provides a link to brewing in that the U.S. version gets its alcohol from a malt base (vs. vodka for Canada), but this is really incidental. It is done for labeling or tax reasons, and flavour is not added by the malt. The hard root beers and now hard soda category use grains as a base to produce the alcohol, indeed fast-rising Not Your Father’s Root Beer appears simply to be a spiced beer.

Still, the taste of the flavourings – spices, juice, sugar, etc. – seems the prime focus of these drinks, not malt and hops as such. Hard sodas are “flavored malt beverages” in the U.S., sometimes dubbed malternatives.  A malternative has to derive at least 51% of its alcohol from fermentation of brewing ingredients such as barley malt. The alcohol can be 100% from this source but not necessarily, in other words.

The labeling issue can get complex depending how the producer wants to identify the drink on the label. Where the product is clearly shown as a beer, I’d guess all the alcohol comes from a fermented cereal mash.

I tried Mike’s Hard Lemonade a couple of times (in Canada), and it tasted quite naturally like lemonade with a shot of vodka in it. Vodka coolers, which come in a riot of flavours today, are a similar idea. Wine coolers may have started the alcopop/cooler trend over generation ago. They in turn seemed to emerge from the “pop wine” era of which legendary Boone’s Farm was a pioneer. Gallo today makes Boone’s Farm beverages, generally from a malt base (vs. wine), which kind of brings things full circle.

Use of Henry Weinhard Name for MillerCoors’ new Hard Sodas

I’ve read a couple of articles which suggested the Henry Weinhard label shouldn’t have been used to brand this new line of drinks, given that is the importance of the Weinhard name and legacy to brewing history. Certainly, Henry Weinhard Private Reserve, first released in 1976, had a definite influence on modern beer culture. That beer, which still exists, advertised the then-new Cascade hop, an unheard of innovation at the time. (The brand was part of an early group of influential beers which helped kick-start the craft era, including Anchor Liberty Ale, New Albion Pale Ale and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale).

On the other hand, Blitz-Weinhard was never a craft brewery and the company actually made soft drinks earlier in the 1900’s. In addition to that, it featured ad campaigns and certain products in its heyday which to my mind fit the spirit of the new Henry’s Hard Soda line.

Therefore, and as the design and graphic work were well done, using the Henry Weinhard name for the new products made good sense, IMO.

Future of Hard Sodas

People have predicted big times before for different kinds of alcopops, or for cider of course. Cider has done well in recent years but seems unlikely to unseat beer’s dominance any time soon.

Brewers know that beer inevitably comes up against the wall in reaching a good part of the mass market. Some people, perhaps the majority of alcohol drinkers, will never get the taste for it and seek other options.  While tea, ciders and apple-flavoured drinks of various kinds, and now hard root beer have proved popular, MillerCoors is betting the public will take to what is essentially a “spiked” soda.

Who could have foretold the massive and sustained success of Grey Goose vodka or Bailey’s Irish Cream Liqueur, say? Jagermeister is kind of similar. One never knows what will catch the fancy, sometimes for a generation or more, of the public…

Mike’s Hard Lemonade of course is a premier example. Maybe Henry’s Hard Soda is the next Mike’s.


Note re image above: it was sourced from this newswire story.




A Tale Of Two Pubs


As for restaurants in general or practically any product, there is old school, new school and middle school so to speak. Two bar establishments in Toronto illustrate well the old and the new.

Bar Volo has been in business about 30 years, but its craft beer focus is more recent. Initially it was an Italian restaurant, but about 12 years ago it started to focus on quality beer, in the process becoming both standard-bearer and bellwether for a recherché beer scene. Its bar is strictly craft, Ontario-focused but with the odd, well-chosen selection from Quebec, B.C., or elsewhere. Yesterday I noticed Cantillon Vigneronne on draft and had a go, well worth it, it was. It’s not every day you can sample artisan Belgian brewing so far away, en très bon état, il faut signaler.


The rhubarb, winy and lactic notes of lambic have a strange attraction after the initial “sour shock”. As the offering is special even by Volo’s standards, the serving was just five ounces but well-worth the experience. I got down a Sawdust City pale lager after – good of its kind, typical German helles-style.

Two different European styles, one a rare historical survival, the other a crafted interpretation of the international beer vernacular.

Bar Volo has the hottest and coolest beer selection going including a creative, import-focused bottled list.

Sour/wild, farmhouse and flavoured beers are much of the moment, many singular and of gastronomic interest. These are frequently featured on Volo’s lists, but far from exclusively. To boot, Volo’s in-house nanobrewery, House Ales, always has offerings on the board, often a cask ale or three. The generally younger crowd are wowed by all this and so they should be.

Walking south on Yonge Street after, just before entering the subway at Dundas, I happened to see Imperial Pub’s sign. This is an old Toronto watering hole, and I realized I’d never gone in. Why not, eh?


The interior is paneled in medium-brown wood planks, with a large circular bar in the centre. I’d guess the wood is a 60’s-70’s re-modelling as the bar was established in 1944.

Booths and other seating, utilitarian as suits the beer aesthetic, ring the room. The outside is an anonymous kind of brick, whether the original construction I can’t say. The Imperial offers beers from Moosehead, the industrial brewing stalwart from the Maritimes, but also carries beer from craft brewer Ste. Ambroise in Montreal, in which Moosehead has a stake. There are a couple of imports too, Grolsch of Holland is one.

I had a pint of Ste. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout. The friendly server offered free house popcorn, which went well with the fresh and creamy black beer. The Imperial represents a disappearing genre of tavern, but is still going strong and has resisted the tide of redevelopment.

The beers are served, incongruously to my mind, in dimpled English pint glasses. I’d guess in the 70’s the bar took on an English pub image, maybe the glassware was part of it. These mugs were once quite common in Toronto but are rarely seen here now. Despite the English touch of the glasses, the Imperial today has a strictly Canadian atmosphere. And one too that recalls an older Canada. When, say, the Toronto folk scene was going strong via Joni Mitchell and Ian and Sylvia in the mid-60’s, most of the beer bars – beverage rooms in the old parlance – looked like the Imperial. It is one of the few still remaining.

I was thinking of all the soldiers and airmen who must have made their way through here in the last years of the war. On a late afternoon of a wan winter Sunday, 2015, the patrons were generally older, and no hipsters that I saw, but Ryerson University is kitty-corner, so I’d guess at other times a different crew come in.

From Bar Volo to Imperial Pub … opposite in many ways, but they share things too. They both refresh and offer a respite from the fretful and sometimes parlous days that characterize life in the early 2000’s. And old and new can be deceiving in some ways, e.g., Volo’s building is actually older than the Imperial’s location by a generation or two.

But one thing I know: we have it better than the soldiery who drank lager and ale at the Imperial in ’44 and ’45, many of them never came back or ended in hospitals. I drained the leavings in my dimpled mug in silent salute to them and their like today who hold us harmless from the inevitable malignities of all eras. After that I entered the subway and came home.


Note re blackboard image: drawn from Bar Volo’s website.

It’s All About the Malt, ’bout the Malt


IMG_20160102_191241Upper Canada Dark Ale

This was one of the early Ontario craft beers, appearing in the mid-80’s from Upper Canada Brewery, a pioneering venture purchased after some years by Sleeman, a mid-size independent, now itself part of Sapporo. The beers were offered in numerous styles – light lager, regular blonde, dark ale, the strong lager Rebellion, and others.  IMO there was a house flavour, kind of butterscotch-like.

The Dark Ale then had a spicy, banana estery quality and Michael Jackson termed it partly Belgian in taste. It was and remains all-malt, always a plus.

After Sleeman bought Upper Canada, the dark ale became cleaner and IMO much better, more like an English brown ale should be. It is clean but well-flavoured with turbinado sugar and earthy tones and has a suitable level of non-citric hops (Challenger) on the finish. It is the kind of brew suited to large glasses, the standard 330 ml bottle hardly does it justice.

It is still one of the best “darks” in Ontario despite flying under the radar for some years now. Beers similar to it in style locally include Wellington Brewery’s County Dark Ale, Amsterdam’s Downtown Brown and Black Oak Nut Brown Ale, all made by long-established craft brewers. They represent a Canadian take on English brown ales such as Newcastle Brown, Samuel Smith Brown Ale, Mann’s Brown.

While less exotic (today) than many of the weird and wonderful styles now favoured by Ontario and world breweries, a well-made brown beer is still one of the best experiences to have on the malty way.

Bavaria 8.6


This Dutch brewer has a line of different brews, I’ve only tried them occasionally over the years. It still does its own malting, a point in its favour.

The beer shown is its “red” and 7.9% ABV, strong in the beer world as that would be Double IPA territory and a patch on most bock.

It is very sweet, to the point I wonder if sugar is added to enhance the malty character. Very grapey too, like a blush or labrusca wine. Yet still there is a “Belgian” character to it underneath. An unusual beer, it probably appeals to those who like flavoured coolers and that type of drink, sweet and fruity and between wine and ordinary beer in strength.

I found its best use in blending, a dryish acerbic stout mixed very well with it, 2:1 respectively.

Einbecker Winter-Bock Beer


I may have had an Einbecker bock only once before despite decades of experience on the beer routes. The company makes a number of different bock beers (in general a malty, strong lager). I found the bottle pictured in a loose bin in New York.

Everything ostensibly looked to contrive a bad experience despite that Einbecker is in a town which reputedly invented bock beer 700 years ago.

There was the green bottle; the form of display (suggesting the bottle had hung around for a while); the marked-down price.

But the beer was surpassingly good, with a particular malty-molasses character only the Germans seem to get at. It’s pictured next to a port bottle because its character is akin to that wine style in some ways.

A lot of German beer, at least as we get it in export form, is so-so but occasionally you can find a classic that shows easily why the country was (is) synonymous with great beer for so long. Dark brews and wheat beer styles often fit the bill, which is appropriate in that blonde lager is a relative interloper in German brewing tradition.



The Session Topic #107 – Breweries and Friends

session_logo-thumb-150x182-126The Session is a monthly round-up of beer blogging opinion on a topic assigned by a rotating host. The host is generally a blogger but this month it’s a brewery, Community Beer Works of nearby Buffalo, NY, a nice change.

The topic is explained here and requests opinion whether a brewery should have a conversation with customers and consumers, in a word if they should be “friends”.

My view is emphatically yes. The only way for customers to learn about a company’s specific products, but also about beer in general, is to ask questions of the people who make it. The more you find out, the more you know. Originally this process took the form of asking questions in letters, or during a brewery tour. Later, you could send an e-mail request through a company’s website.

In recent years, Facebook and Twitter help a lot to get advertising messages across but also facilitate two-way conversation: consumers can learn about production methods, new product releases and other information.

Some breweries make themselves more available to the public than others. The beer writer Michael Jackson in his first major book in 1978 acknowledged the cooperation of most breweries yet lamented the few who were “reticent to the point of discourtesy”. So it always was and always will be.

I have found brewers (almost all) remarkably willing to share information, and want to hear whatever they have to say. All information is good, even fairly non-specific advertising content, you can learn from everything.

Most brewers, too, are interested to hear what consumers say, it’s good business but also there is a special kinship between brewers and consumers. Good drink of any kind inspires fellowship and solidarity, a drink with friends helps bring people together. Who better to form part of the conversation than the person who made what’s in your glass?

I follow a number of breweries on Twitter, I like to see the content they put across and occasionally respond to make a comment or suggestion. At a brewpub, or bar where a brewer I know is present, we always talk about brewing ingredients, recipes, what’s good, what’s next, what’s better.

Breweries certainly are friends to those interested in how beer is made, its palate, its history. For those not interested to talk to producers, it’s easy to avoid the process by not following them on Twitter or Facebook, or chatting with a brewpub owner about the weather or politics, say. That’s not me. If I met the people from Community Beer Works, I’d ask, hey guys, which hop in your single hop releases did you really like, what beer got the best consumer reaction, have you ever tried Sterling for ales, any chance to get your beer in Toronto, maybe call X whom I know in town, etc. etc.